It came across at first a mere mistake, the work of overzealous members of the armed forces. But when on Friday, newspapers did not get to the readers all across the country, it was obvious that it was not an act of soldiers acting beyond their call of duty. It was their damnable call of duty.
They had been mandated by the high command to impound newspapers, including The Nation, from reaching their destinations. The Nation was not the only victim in this act of savage disregard to free speech. It affected major newspapers, and the umbrage is evident in the voices of these newspapers because of its throwback to the era of military nervousness.
The Nation was not allowed to move in the various regions of the country. In the Southwest, this newspaper did not circulate in the major cities of the region, including Ibadan, Ekiti, Osogbo, Abeokuta, Ondo and Akure. In the South-south, the newspaper did not reach buyers in Port Harcourt, Asaba, Warri, Uyo and Calabar, as well as other parts of the region.
In the Federal Capital Territory, the soldiers clamped down at the distribution hub in Garki. They hounded away the distribution staff, including drivers, and set the vehicle drivers in disarray. They impounded the vehicles of such newspapers as The Nation, The Punch, The Vanguard, The Leadership, The Guardian, The Sun, and quite a few others. This happened on Friday with a repeat on Saturday.
The Nation newspaper was also barred from the northern cities, including Kano, Kaduna, Zaria, Jos, as well as their smaller towns. The fact that this was allowed to happen once and the second time, and the military did not retreat from such act, shows that the military was not alone in this matter. It was not an example of lower level zealousness but upper-crust disdain and fear.
The Jonathan administration that has claimed to give fair airings to divergent views has reached a new high mark in tyranny. At the time of this editorial, no government official from the Presidency has issued any statement on this primitive show of force.
To worsen this matter and establish a pattern, the Nigeria Press Council has issued a directive to broadcast stations across the country, including the TV Continental and Channels TV, stating that henceforth, no live political programme should air without clearance 48 hours before broadcast.
This is happening also against the background of an order in Abuja by notorious police commissioner, Mbu Joseph Mbu (formerly of the Rivers State Police Command but now of the Federal Capital Territory), to ban any protests for the release of the over 200 missing Chibok girls. The shameful pirouette on the order has not been adequately explained.
It shows a strong temper of intolerance by the Jonathan administration that it could be comparing itself in deed not the best of democracies but to the worst of military dictatorship. This is a president who in farcical language tended to derogate the vices of Pharaohs and Nebuchadnezzar. Yet his government is presiding over the cruelest act of suppression of free speech.
The excuse advanced by the military on the first day of the clampdown was that they were working on intelligence that the insurgent group Boko Haram was planning to use newspaper vans to carry out attacks. We appreciate the military for being sensitive to a piece of intelligence. But what was the wisdom in detaining vehicles for a whole day? If they wanted to check the vehicles for incriminating or subversive matter, all they needed to do was search the vehicles and satisfy themselves that the vehicles did not carry any substance that could imperil the peace.
Such an exercise when done professionally should not have delayed the vehicles for more than 30 minutes. They have the tools to search for arms and other explosives, and we believe they ought to have at least technology of modest sophistication to detect them. They could have undertaken their searches and allowed the vehicles to reach their places of destination. How does a newspaper that trades on truth become a public enemy? How does the Jonathan administration, which has bumbled its way serially in the fight against terror, now want to nail down the media as the enemy? Is this shameful show of cluelessness the way the Jonathan administration has been conducting its war on Boko Haram? If that is the case, we can see why it has become a laughing stock of the international community. They have been tragically pursuing the wrong targets.
Is the media guilty because it wants to report the facts and imbue the society with the various actions and tendencies of the political class? If the Jonathan administration has any point of view to canvass, it has its media staff to articulate them.
The Jonathan administration cannot also explain why it has decided through the Press Council to rein in free speech also in the electronic media. Live shows are an important jewel in broadcasting and in modern communication. The president’s periodic press show is also beamed live on national television and online. So, would the president say that it ought to notify the Press Council and allow it to vet everything the president says?
This muzzling of free speech has no place in a civilised society. It is rash, reckless, irresponsible and out of sync with the high ideals of democracy and liberal society. We therefore call on the presidency to halt this vicious trend. It is not in its place to allow or disallow the media to do its work. The Constitution already grants that right and it cannot be taken away by anybody, no matter how misguided or powerful they think they are. But the Jonathan presidency must halt its newfound war against the press because it is a distraction too many — and this government is too tragically distracted already. The media mirrors society, and the president has no right in the constitution to stop this. It subverts the tenets of the constitution that guarantees free speech.
Ordering soldiers to impound distribution vehicles and the Press Council to choke out targeted political shows is a sure way to rank this president and its team among the despotic follies of history anywhere.